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About 5000 teachers and education workers gathered outside the provincial legislature at Queens Park on Aug. 28 2012 to protest against a controversial bill that would impose wage freezes on Ontario teachers. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
About 5000 teachers and education workers gathered outside the provincial legislature at Queens Park on Aug. 28 2012 to protest against a controversial bill that would impose wage freezes on Ontario teachers. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Labour

The weakening state of Canadian labour unions Add to ...

And if unions need proof, he says companies now come to them armed with reams of data about workload and output, creating a far different dynamic in negotiations.

“Everything is a statistic today, like the data that’s provided today about lost time from work, or productivity per square footage. Even a custodial worker – a janitor – is measured on the square footage of the average person cleaning the average amount of dirt.”

Mr. Lewenza’s hope for the future of the labour movement is that it can reach out to the people most frustrated by Canada’s shift into “a low-wage, insecurity economy,” including young people and new graduates who are having difficulty finding good jobs.

Paul Moist

National President of CUPE

It’s a difficult time to head a public-sector union as governments throughout Canada look to slash budgets, but Paul Moist says government workers shouldn’t have to pay for a global economic crisis reducing government revenues.

“I don’t think public-employee costs caused this, but we’re in the post-recession, pay-down-the-deficit era that puts a strain on the public sector,” he says.

To protect the jobs of public servants, Canada’s largest union, representing 618,000 public-sector workers, has urged union locals to become partners and even innovators in the search for better work processes.

“I still maintain the best job security for a CUPE member is the efficiency of the work force,” Mr. Moist says. “For example, the way we serve patients at bedsides in hospitals bears no resemblance with what existed with orderlies 20 or 25 years ago. All that has been done without fanfare between the parties. This doesn’t make the news.”

Mr. Moist argues the best way to find solutions to Canada’s looming work-force problems – notably chronic unemployment in some sectors and a shortage of workers in other areas – is to bring labour, business and government together to develop joint strategies.

Yet with several key planning councils losing funding from the Harper government, he says venues for such dialogue are disappearing.

“We need some more tables to talk about things like retirement issues for all Canadians and labour-force development issues,” he says. “I think the country badly needs that, but I don’t see it being imminent with the current crowd in charge.”

Peter Birnie

President of Wabi Iron and Steel Corp.

Peter Birnie doesn’t spend much time thinking about working with a unionized labour force at his New Liskeard, Ont., manufacturing plant, where workers are represented by the United Steelworkers Union.

Instead, he says his worries are the same as those running non-union plants: how to compete with global competition and the rapid pace of change in every industry sector.

“In a unionized environment there are some work rules and there’s a more rigid job-classification process, but in every work environment, whether it’s unionized or non-unionized, it really comes down to individuals,” he says. “Some people have an inability to change faster than other people, and I think that’s really the fundamental issue.”

Workers and their unions, he says, have no choice but to accept the new need for flexibility and lifelong learning in the workplace, although he says it is undeniably stressful for older workers with less formal education.

“The pace of change may slow or speed up, but it’s not going backwards to where we were. So our ability to absorb change is going to continue to be an important aspect of all our careers. And I think we’re all going to have to understand that it’s not a choice that any one person may choose, but it’s actually fundamental in the sense that, like it or not, it’s going to happen.”

The president of Wabi, which makes mining equipment such as mining cages and ore loading systems, adds he has been impressed by the extent to which union leaders understand the current work and economic environment.

“It would be a terrible mistake on the part of a business manager to think that labour doesn’t understand, or that they’re not watching the news,” he says.

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